Hillary Clinton says that the Obama administration can’t do anything about Bashar al-Assad. They can’t make him step down, and they can’t stop him from massacring women and children, as he did last week in Houla. “The Syrians are not going to listen to us,” Clinton said last week. “They may listen, maybe, to the Russians, so we have to keep pushing them.”
The secretary of state’s hedging is instructive. Maybe Assad will listen to Russia. Maybe Russia will force out Assad. Clarity is the outward expression of resolve, but Clinton’s uncertainty is the rhetoric of impotence, a condition the White House has imposed on itself. It signals to both adversaries and allies that they are free to act on their own because the White House is unable to shape outcomes.
If the Syrian conflict turns into a full-scale civil war, says Clinton, it’s Russia’s fault. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, fears the crisis may spread to the rest of the region and that the international community therefore “had better do something” about it. Obama’s Secretary of Defense, meanwhile, can’t imagine how the United States could take military action in Syria without U.N. authorization. “My greatest responsibility,” said Leon Panetta, “is to make sure when we deploy our men and women in uniform and put them at risk, we not only know what the mission is, but we have the kind of support we need to accomplish that mission.”
In other words, the administration believes America is incapable of acting on its own to defend and advance its own interests. The White House has come to see the U.S. role in the region much as the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran did. To paraphrase the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the Obama administration can’t do a damn thing.
In reality, the administration chose the course of passivity. It’s not Russia’s fault that the White House handed off its Syria policy to Moscow. And you can’t blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for not wanting to end a crisis that has boosted Russia’s standing. Moscow is now the destination for any regional or international power that wants to do something about Syria. Moscow is understandably basking in the attention. Prestige is a key part of any political and diplomatic arsenal, and serious statesmen try to acquire it.
Maybe Obama will one day decide to be a serious statesman himself, but in the meantime, the White House’s concessions to Russia have opened a door for the Iranians. Last week, the deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force acknowledged that members of the external operations units were active in Syria fighting alongside Assad loyalists. The purpose was to force yet more Iranian demands down the administration’s throat. If Russia gets to stake a claim to Syria, why wouldn’t Iran, which after all has a deep investment in ensuring the survival of its chief regional ally? Unlike the Russians, the Iranians aren’t in it just for the fun of it; they are rolling out a genuine strategy.
In Baghdad last week, Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili made it clear that if the White House wants to bargain over nuclear issues, then the Iranians have other items they want to discuss, like Syria. For the Iranians, the longer they can keep the U.S. negotiators at the table, the more time they have to affect facts on the ground—with their nuclear weapons program, and also in Syria. If the administration refuses to back the opposition force in Syria to fight on behalf of U.S. interests and against an Iranian ally, that only makes Tehran, which has made clear it does have a dog in the fight, stronger.
The White House has justified its unwillingness to back the Free Syrian Army by explaining that to do so would only result in more carnage. By not acting, though, the administration is perhaps inviting the bloodshed it hopes to avoid.
Both allies and adversaries can sense this administration’s weakness. Because the Obama team has refused to play America’s traditional role as regional power, the Israelis are led to believe that stopping Iran is up to them alone. The world’s failure to intervene in Syria, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently observed, shows that “it is not clear” that “the world will indeed act” to come to Israel’s defense. This was a message meant for the White House.
Obama says he doesn’t bluff, and that all options are on the table to stop the Iranian nuclear program, including the use of military force. However, the administration’s decisions on Syria suggest something else—that the White House will do anything it can to avoid military conflict. Instead of putting forth a credible military plan to show Assad, as well as others, that the United States is serious about stopping him, administration officials continue to intimate that the Syrian military is a formidable opponent—with 600,000 men under arms and a Russian air defense system. The reality is that Assad’s army, at this point a whittled-down sectarian militia, is not even capable of beating back the Free Syrian Army. Otherwise, Assad would not need Iranian reinforcements. If Assad’s ragtag army presents this big a challenge to the White House, then what about the Iranians, with terrorist assets around the world and speedboats harassing the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf?
Since the White House’s handling of Syria has given evidence only of impotence, the Israelis, as well as the Iranians, cannot help but conclude that Obama will play the same hand with Iran that he has with Syria. He isn’t even bluffing. He has simply folded.